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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Prescott's mounting problems
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Perhaps the sharpest attack on John Prescott during his latest difficulties has come from one of his own backbenchers, former minister Kate Hoey.

The Dome
Future use of Dome is in question
It is not that an assault from that quarter will have come as a huge surprise, or be seen as particularly dangerous in its own right.

It is simply that Ms Hoey put her finger on the nature of the storm now engulfing the deputy prime minister.

"I think the problem with John Prescott now is that he really is seen as a bit of a figure of fun out there with the public.

"It doesn't really matter now what the issue is and what the denial is, the public don't really believe it," she said, before calling for him to consider his position.

In other words, she said, the culmination of the stories that have recently battered Mr Prescott - his affair with his diary secretary, the removal of his departmental responsibilities, the row over his continuing ministerial perks - has been enough to make his position untenable, no matter what the facts of the latest row turn out to be.

Dome plans

The facts of the latest furore, for example, are far from straightforward. And it may now fall to parliamentary watchdog, Sir Philip Mawer, to get to the bottom of it.

John Prescott
John Prescott met businessman seven times
The Tories want to know why Mr Prescott met Philip Anschutz, the American billionaire bidding to turn the Millennium Dome into Britain's only supercasino, on seven separate occasions.

Shadow culture secretary Hugo Swire also asked why Mr Prescott originally failed to declare a stay at the tycoon's US ranch in the register of MPs' interests.

Mr Prescott has now entered it into the register, saying he wants to ensure there is no doubt that he acted with integrity. But that has failed to satisfy Mr Swire who claims it fails to answer the key questions in the affair.

The question mark is being raised over whether Mr Prescott's involvement with Mr Anschutz was in any way connected to the businessman's plans for the Dome, which he bought in 2002, and if it amounted to a conflict of interest - specifically outlawed in the ministerial code.

The deputy prime minister has robustly denied the suggestions, insisting he had no role in any planning decisions on the Dome or any negotiations for its sale to Mr Anschutz.

His talks with the businessman, including those during a stay at his ranch at which civil servants were also present, concerned the running of a large ranch and a film Mr Anschutz was planning on former Hull MP William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery.

Summer holiday

Mr Anschutz declined an offer to meet the $600 cost of the stay, so the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister made a donation of the same amount to the Red Cross appeal for the victims of the July 7 bombings in London.

Philip Anschutz
Mr Anschutz wants to create supercasino
"No record of this stay was made in the Register of Members' Interests, as my visit to the US was entirely on official business and the cost was entirely covered by public funds," said Mr Prescott.

None of that has silenced the row, with Mr Swire claiming the explanations only raise more questions over just why Mr Prescott had seven meetings with Mr Anschutz, and saying there is a "bad smell" over the affair.

All of this comes on the heels of those previous storms and just before Mr Prescott will be expected to take over day-to-day running of the government during Tony Blair's long summer holiday.

At the moment, Mr Blair continues to offer Mr Prescott his "full confidence" and there are no signs that the deputy prime minister is planning to resign.

The danger for Mr Prescott is that, as Alastair Campbell might have said, he has now become the story. And that is something which can prove fatal.


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